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Meet the woman behind £250m online auction portal ATG Media

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ATG media CEO Anne Somers has defied the odds and is now bulldozing America

Transitions can be hard. There has been Mariah Carrey’s and Paris Hilton’s attempted transitions into acting, Donald Trump’s failed transition into presidential politics, not to mention various Spice Girls botched attempts at becoming respectable solo artists.

On the business side of things, few industries embody the challenges of transition better than media’s agonising stumble from print to online. The mere paring of the two concepts is enough to send many a media mogul running to the loo in floods of tears. In the US, 166 papers went bust just between 2008 and 2010, with many more falling by the wayside even as the recession at long last started to ease.  

Unbeknown to most of us though, one rather unexpected London print business took the onslaught of the internet in its stride. In just a few years, it transformed from a dusty, weekly trade mag into an online empire that now looks set to take the US by storm. Sales have been rising by around 20% year on year for the last few years and in 2012 stood at £214m. The company expects to at the very least match those growth projections this year, bringing its sales total to well over £250m.

Anne Somers is the woman at the heart of this transformation. Before you go there, it has nothing to do with the slightly better known brand – that’s spelled Ann Summers – but Somers has been helping the country undergo a silent shopping revolution nonetheless.

Anne Somers

Anne Somers, CEO ATG

Her company ATG media, is now a global pioneer of auction portals and live and timed online auctions. It connects antique and fine art dealers to customers in over 150 countries, and has recently branched out to hold live industrial auctions. That means ATG has the ability to simultaneously sell miniature 18th century Chinese porcelain statues, and disused bottling plants – quite an evolution from its days as the Antiques Trade Gazette.

We talk to Somers, who started at the Gazette as an apprentice in the mid-1970s and has worked her way up to be ATG’s CEO, about how she has got it right, where so many other have got it oh so terribly wrong.

Q. So tell us how you got involved with Antique Trade Gazette?

The magazine was founded in 1971. Up until then, the only way that people knew what was coming to auction was through their local press. Our founder saw that he could seize that opportunity and could bring together buyers and sellers on a national level.

Then, once we got the major players like Christie’ss on board, we were able to go international.

That is what we continue to do to this day. We bring people together. Our business has changed but we still publish our magazine and have 45,000 weekly readers.

Q. From being an apprentice to now CEO, how’s the journey been?

Ha. I did it the old fashioned apprentice route. I did my A levels and really didn’t want to go to university.

I was taken on in order to sort out the subscription department, which was in a real state. My first task was to computerise that. That is how I started down the line of introducing computers into a business. At this point we were still on typewriters and carbon paper.

Since then, I moved around doing just about every job in the paper apart from write. I have laid out pages, sold advertising, you name it. It has helped me get a very good grasp of wider industry needs

Q. But what about the Internet?

We watched the internet develop in the 1990s but our market wasn’t in touch with it. Our readers and auctioneers were probably a little antiquated themselves and didn’t really demand change so there wasn’t much need for us to embrace the dotcom boom then.

But, by the end of the decade we decided we needed an internet strategy. We realised though that just taking the publication online was not really going to work. It wasn’t where we wanted to take the business and it wouldn’t help us grow.

What we could do online which was novel was to display great volumes of goods. Whereas an auctioneer could put 20 items on a page before, online they could post their entire auction, fully illustrated. That’s why we launched a site that hosted online catalogues.

Then the rollout of broadband happened and by 2004/5 we could think about taking the next step, which was the addition of the live bidding functionality.

Our first auction was in 2006. The business really grew from there. At that point, the only alternative was eBay live auction. They have since pulled out of the market.

Q. What made you think that you could make such an ambitious project work?

We were totally immersed in our industry and we have always had great relationships with our auctioneers. Plus, we already had the pool of buyers from our publication so it was only matter of making them migrate online. We also worked hard to spread our international base.

Once we got people browsing online, it a natural progression to get them to bid for things.

Q. Were there any major challenges?

A major challenge was that the auctioneers were still using Kodak film cameras so we had to scan all the images! It takes 600 photos to get a catalogue online. It was exhausting!

We therefore decided it would be cheaper to go out and purchase digital cameras. We gave these to the auctioneers in the hope that we could receive all of their photos in a digital way.

In terms of online bidding, auctioneers would worry that online bidders would slow the auction down, but it doesn’t. If anything, selling through telephone bidding can be more time and resource- consuming so people started seeing the benefits early on.

We can now have up to a 1,000 registered bidders in an auction. Even 10 years ago you would get 50 to 100 in the room, and maybe 10 by phone.

Q. Did you have to design the technology yourself?

Yes. Back when we were looking to do live auctions we approached eBay to see if we could use their platform but they turned us down.

So we looked at other companies who had live bidding applications that we could bolt onto. We met with industrial auction site Bidspotter then and leased their application for two years. During which point we built our own and we eventually came to overtake them in terms of technology.

In 2009, they asked us to host and manage their UK-based site in 2009 and in April 2013 we were able to take over the American operations. We trialled a lot of different platforms to make sure we could do it on a bigger scale and we have just launched that platform.  

Q. How big a part of your business is print now?

The print is still self-sufficient and contributes to our revenue. Everyone talks about print publishing being dead and we have not seen that. We have managed to grow our subscribers and revenue alongside the rest of our online business.

Our readers tend to be a little bit older and don’t have that craving to have all their information online. If you are a dealer and you’re going to a fare, it will be easier to display it that way.

That has made us resilient.

Q You used to be owned by the Daily Mail group. Tell us about that?

In 1994 the original founder sold the Gazette to The Daily Mail and General Trust. They encouraged us to be pretty entrepreneurial so we thrived under them and took the opportunity to keep growing.

But in 2008 we held a successful management buyout. We were backed by Matrix, which is now Mobeus [British Private Equity Awards 2012’s venture capital trust of the year.] They were great but the majority of shares are owned by myself and my colleagues who orchestrated the management buyout.

Q. Wasn’t that just about the worst time ever to t
ry make it on your own?

It was hard. We were probably about the last company to do a management buyout in the crisis. It didn’t close until after Lehman crashed but had really good support from our bank and Mobeus. They continued to support us despite the very turbulent situation. We eventually closed 4 October, 2008. Three weeks after Lehman.

But we were actually fine until the following year. Only in January did we realise we had to make a few adjustments. We then pulled our horns in but interestingly it came back.

The price of just about everything exploded. Cost of transport, fuel, everything went up. People were very much staying where they were but this meant that dealers, who used to drive around the country, now started doing it from their homes. They realised they could attend five auctions each day, while sitting at home.

Q. What does the future hold?

We want to have a look at where we can take Bidspotter next. It is a fantastic business in terms of industrial auctions and a market leader in that field, but there is more that we can do there. We are also going to start looking into what we can do with our data. That is a very significant area for us, we have accumulated a lot of information so it is a question of how can we monetise that?

In terms of customer care within our auctions, we are trying to create an Amazon-like experience. We have therefore a delivery service. If you buy through our site, we can arrange the shipping.

We started it in February and are trying a six-month pilot. It’s not the shipping that is the problem, it is the packing. Auctioneers were finding it difficult to do all that so we feel there is an opportunity to send someone in to pack the goods and then ship them to customers. We wanted a one-stop-shop.

Great! Thanks Anne, good luck with your American expansion.  

 




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